Saturday, September 12, 2009

Canada: Nuclear Renaissance or Nuclear Vita Nova?

The Nuclear Renaissance has been a much-awaited thing in Canada, for at least the last four years, if not longer. Renaissance, of course, suggests the idea of 'rebirth', a beginning anew of a life once lived; with the subtext that things in this rebirthed life will be much the same as before, only newer.

Over the last several decades, the Canadian nuclear industry evolved to encompass three main sectors: Uranium Mining, Reactors for Power Production, and Radioisotopes for Medical Uses. Of these three, the reactor segment has had the greatest visibility, while, on a worldwide basis, it was actually the uranium mining and medical radioisotope segments which had the greatest relative market share. A 'renaissance' in the Canadian nuclear sector therefore came to be understood primarily in terms of new reactors, and new reactors essentially of the same CANDU pressure-tube configuration that Canada pioneered and which now are operating in many other countries as well.

But in his speech at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Annual Regulatory Information Conference in March 2009, NRC-RIC-2009, the Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mr. Tomohiro Taniguchi of Japan, speaking at the session on Global Perspectives on the Nuclear Renaissance, introduced a new phrase that he hoped would refocus the emphasis on new ways of doing things in the new nuclear age: Nuclear Vita Nova:
I, on the other hand, view this reality as a Vita Nova, or new life, because the nuclear community needs new ideas and innovative thinking to address new challenges, rather than a simple revival of the "good old days."

At the current juncture, when Nuclear New Build - which seemed imminent just a few months ago - has been indefinitely postponed in the main Canadian province; when the main Canadian reactor builder faces an uncertain future; and when the main private reactor operator in Canada has withdrawn its license applications for new nuclear reactors - it is certainly worth pondering what is in store for the Canadian nuclear sector - a Renaissance, or a Vita Nova? And if it is to be the latter, might the relative (and perceived) importance of the three main sectors change from what it was in the past? At the moment the answer is not clear, but the singular salience of the question must certainly be recognized.

(Dr. Taniguchi took care to mention at the end of his talk, for the benefit of those who might have missed the allusion, which, given his audience, was probably everybody - that his neologism 'Vita Nova' was actually the Latin form of the Italian La Vita Nuova, the title of a collection of verse that Dante Alighieri wrote in 1295, being an expression of the medieval genre of courtly love. Incidentally, the incoming Director General of the IAEA, beginning 01 December 2009, is also from Japan - Yukiya Amano. He will be taking over from Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei of Egypt, who has been named Director General Emeritus, an honor he shares with Dr. Hans Blix. Dr. Amano's appointment to the Director-Generalship of the IAEA will be ratified during the 53rd General Conference of the IAEA in Vienna, 14-18 September 2009. Like Dr. El-Baradei and Dr. Blix, Dr. Amano is also a lawyer. By coincidence, the current Director-General of ITER, Mr. Kaname Ikeda, and the current Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Mr. Nobuo Tanaka, are also Japanese.)

Update: After I wrote this post, I discovered that on the TV Ontario program The Agenda, the season-opening episode on 8th September had been on Canada's Nuclear Future. I am pleased to embed the video, featuring an extremely spirited discussion (in which, as Steve Paikin, the host, quipped, they ran out of time but clearly not energy. The astute physicist reader of this blog will immediately see Steve Paikin's probably unintended pun here - since energy and time are classically canonically conjugate variables, they are related through a quantum uncertainty principle - the more precisely you bound one of them [in this case, time], the more uncertain the other will be!):